Quebec History Marianopolis College

Date Published:
May 2006

L’Encyclopédie de l’histoire du Québec / The Quebec History Encyclopedia


Canadian Immigration History

(lecture plan)


Claude Bélanger,

Department of History,

Marianopolis College.


I. The failure of Canadian immigration before 1896.

Relatively few immigrants came to Canada before 1896. In fact, Canada was far more a land of emigration than immigration, as thousands of Canadians left the country for the United States where industry was in need of cheap labour.

  1. Constitutional provisions regarding immigration: mixed federal-provincial jurisdiction
  2. Acquisition of the North West territories (necessary step)
  3. Building the transportation infrastructure: the CPR (1885)
  4. USA moves progressively into restrictive immigration (early 1900’s and in the 1920’s)
  5. Canada is the “The Last Best West"

 II. Three models of Integration of Immigrants:

  1. Anglo (French) conformity.
  2. The Melting pot
  3. Pluralism/multiculturalism
  4. The models pursued by Canada: before 1945 (Anglo conformity) and after 1945 (increasingly multiculturalism).


III. Canadian immigration policy before 1945.

  1. Open doors (only as to overall number of immigrants); the more immigrants would come to Canada, the better it would be. We do not seek to restrict numbers and will only significantly do so during the Great Depression (1929-1939). See the following pages for number of immigrants by country of origin (1900-1920) (1921-1945) or by region (1900-1970). (More data with different periods defined)
  2. Economically "self-serving" : “Only farmers need apply" (farmers, servants, labourers, miners). Ideally, immigrants should go West to farm the Prairies. Prairie farm settlement was part of the design to make the National Policy function appropriately. A "bad immigrant" was one that moved to the cities of the East to compete with Canadians for scarce industrial jobs. Ex. Memorandum from Clifford Sifton to Wilfrid Laurier (April 15, 1901): "Our desire is to promote the immigration of farmers and farm labourers. We have not been disposed to exclude foreigners of any nationality who seemed likely to become successful agriculturalists". However, the needs of business were of paramount importance. It required low paid workers for jobs that Canadians simply would not do. Consequently, the federal Government was prepared to accommodate business so that the Canadian economy would prosper. Ex. it was not difficult for the Canadian Pacific Railway to "import" Chinese labour to finish its transcontinental railway. Such was also the case in the mines and lumber camps of Canada.
  3. "Assimilation". The model: white, anglo-saxons, protestant (WASP). The closer you are to the model, the more likely you are to be accepted by the government and the people of Canada. The more you divert from the model, the more "foreign" you are, the more difficult for you to enter Canada and the more likely you will face discrimination by ordinary Canadians once here. Section 38 of the Canadian Immigration Act of 1910 gave the Canadian Government the power to prohibit the entry "of immigrants belonging to any race deemed unsuited to the climate or requirements of Canada". People from "warm countries" were deemed unsuited for immigration to Canada.

    a) "Preferred Category": British and Americans, West Europeans. Example: the Empire Settlement Scheme, 1923.

    b) "Acceptable Category" (although not "preferred"). These are Sifton's immigrants in "sheep-skin coats". East Europeans (Russians, Ukrainians, Poles); South Europeans (Italians, Greeks, Spaniards). If they go West and farm, they will be accepted although considered "foreign", as long as they know "their place". A regulation of 1923 classified the following countries as "non-preferred": Czechoslovakia, Poland, Yugoslavia, Austria, Hungary, Romania, Russia, Latvia, Estonia and Lithuania. By this regulation, immigration from these countries was limited to agricultural and domestic workers and sponsored immigrants. However, as few British and American immigrants sought to enter Canada in the 1920's, the Railway Agreements of 1925 was made to favour the coming of East Europeans to Canada. The lowest in the category of "not preferred" were the Jews (they divert from the model by virtue of their language, culture, religion... as well as tend to go to the cities of Montreal, Toronto and Winnipeg; in 1921, only 4% of Canadian Jews lived in rural Canada); they were the most subjected to discrimination of all the white settlers to Canada in the pre-1945 period.

    c) The "Non Preferred" and "Not Acceptable" category: Members of visible minorities. Each of these groups faced prejudice and discrimination by Canadians and their government. Laws and/or regulations were issued to prevent their coming to Canada. Yet, businesses (such as railways) frequently wanted them admitted to Canada so that a pool of "cheap labour" be available for them. These immigrants did jobs that nobody else in Canada wanted to do.

    The following were the means used to keep members of visible minorities out of Canada:

i. The Chinese: Head Taxes are imposed (1885, 1900, 1903) by 1903, the head-tax was set at $500; minimum financial requirement (1908); the financial requirement was a response to the 1907 anti-Asian riots in Vancouver. Chinese Exclusion law (1923);

ii. "Indians": "Continuous Journey" regulation was implemented (1908); see the Komagata Maru Incident (1914);

iii) Blacks: Health Regulations were used to keep them away - they were deemed "unsuited to Canada" by virtue of the climate of Canada; further, the Canadian Government hired a preacher in the period of 1908-1910 to visit the Creek-Negroes of Oklahoma and to discourage them from emigrating to the Canadian West; the Winnipeg immigration office went as far as paying a bonus to any immigration officer who rejected a black applicant. In 1911, a regulation to prohibit the entrance of Blacks into Canada was prepared by the Laurier Government. It was not issued because Laurier's government was defeated in the general elections of the same year.

iv. Japanese: "Gentlemen's Agreement" (1907 and 1928); the Gentlemen's Agreement was a response to the 1907 anti-Asian riots in Vancouver. Internment and relocation in World War II; deportation of many at the end of the War. In its policies regarding Japanese in Canada, the government followed the lead of the United States.


IV. Why Canada Refused Jewish Refugees in the 1930's

V. Why the Canadian Immigration Policy Started to Change after 1945.

Mackenzie King's statement in Parliament on immigration (1947)

VI.  The post 1945 immigration policy:

In 1947, Mackenzie King consigned in his diary that he had trouble gaining acceptance of a post-war immigration policy restricting entry of Asians into Canada because some of his cabinet colleagues thought that the policy should be harsher while others opposed it as discriminatory. This opposition was a clear sign that things were changing in Canada.

Another sign of change was a case raised in 1946 by the NSAACP (Nova Scotia Association for the Advancement of Coloured People). The Association raised money to help Viola Desmond fight segregation in Nova Scotia movie theatres. Desmond, a beautician from Halifax, had been arrested in New Glasgow when it was found she had sat downstairs in a movie theatre instead of the balcony were blacks were to sit. She was thrown in jail and fined for attempting to defraud the government of Nova Scotia of one cent of amusement tax (seats in the balcony were less expensive). For this offence, she was sentenced to 30 days in jail or a $20.00 fine. She paid the fine but appealed the decision. Eventually, the case was thrown out of Court on technicalities. However, there was such bad publicity across Canada around this case of discrimination that such laws were soon abandoned.

Characteristics of the Canadian immigration policy after 1945:

  1. The progressive nature of the changes.
  2. Immigration was increasingly regulated around economic cycles; immigration was increased in times of prosperity and decreased in poorer economic conditions. The economic incentive around immigration remained very strong. Mostly skilled and professional workers were sought. Here, again, changes were slow and progressive. Still in 1949, A. R. M. Lower, a prominent Canadian historian, could write in MacLean's Magazine (May 15, 1949, p. 70): "Immigrant labour must be cheap or we would not seek it. The word 'cheap' includes a lot more than the money-rate -- it touches such qualities as docility, timidity, ignorance. These add up to reliability. [...] The primary incentive of those who want immigration is the [...] realization that immigration is profitable".
  3. The progressive removal of discriminatory clauses (1947, 1952, 1962, 1967). By the late 1960's, admission into Canada was done on a point system. These points are attributed on a non-discriminatory basis.
  4. The strong anti-communist components of the policy. In the period of 1945 to 1963, anti-communism was a fundamental factor in Canadian immigration policy. At the height of the Cold War, security elements were an important feature of the policy. Anti-communist immigrants were advantaged in applying to come to Canada. Left-wing immigrants were deemed suspicious and were likely to be rejected by Canadian Immigration. It has been argued that it was easier for former fascists than their victims to enter Canada in this period. This explains why some Nazi War Criminals gained entry into Canada. We were more preoccupied with communism than Fascism.
  5. The humanitarian components become important in Canadian immigration:

    a. Family reunification; once in Canada, an immigrant can sponsor members of his/her family. Conditions may apply in the sponsoring program. Usually, the sponsor takes financial responsibility for an extended period of time for the immigrant.

    b. Refugee policy; a policy was progressively developed. Among the blocks of admitted refugees were the following:

    • Jews (1945-48)
    • Hungarians (1956-1957) (38,000 refugees to Canada)
    • Czechoslovakia (1968)
    • Uganda (1973-1975)
    • South-East Asia (1973 +)
    • South Americans (1980's, Chileans, Salvadorians)
    • Various groups since the 1980's.

VII. Contrasting Pre and Post 1945 Canadian Immigration Regulations.


© 2006 Claude Bélanger, Marianopolis College